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The Detroit Lions are learning to win with defense

So far, it’s been defense, not offense, that has determined success or failure for the Detroit Lions.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Detroit Lions Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

It’s all very particularly strange. For almost ten years, the Detroit Lions have looked to the offense to play lights out as the measure of their success. Save for maybe one year (and a year that still featured Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson), Detroit’s primary operating identity was a team that went out and hucked it chucked it and scored points. That’s what it was supposed to do, and it had success to wildly varying degrees.

Three games in, and the Falcons victory is pounding home a new thought, one of defense and the unspeakable horrors of a pass rush screaming at your face. It’s all quite baffling as the Lions were coming off a top ten offense just last year with Jared Goff and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, but the first three games in 2023 have been won (or lost) on how the defense has played. It’s time for more of that.

Most teams in the NFL develop an identity that sticks with them for years and years. Whether they ever live up to the reputation, it still follows them and colors how fans, media and even the players perceives the club itself. The Steelers would like to ground and pound until the end of days, the Dolphins have always relied on high-flying cunning, the Broncos establish themselves along the lines of scrimmage, and the Bears will never stop acting like it’s goddamn 1985. This may all seem reductive, a gross oversimplification, but tropes have power on a subliminal level, and as a sports writer one should never shy away from a good generalization; it besmirches the whole genre to think yourself above such things.

The Lions have no such identity to lean back on. There is no great archetype of Lions football, unless you really want to go back and hold up the spirit of Buddy Parker and the two-minute offense (he belongs in the Hall of Fame, all the same).

What the Lions do have in their history is a collection of great players in different ages. What they have are names you remember, icons and living talismans. You’ve got Lem Barney and Barry Sanders, you’ve got Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford, you’ve got the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. Eras may overlap, duos may be formed, but this has been a town and a team with titans rather than titanic stature. I hope that makes sense because I won’t help you, or myself, if it doesn’t.

Right. The defense. That’s what’s different, isn’t it? We’re not just talking about one standout player, but a whole damn unit of monsters getting set to tear it up. Brian Branch is playing like a thief, a reaver and a slayer. Aidan Hutchinson has a career that is going to run out of words. They keep giving more reps to Jack Campbell and Derrick Barnes and both of those monsters are giving me hope that the Lions finally have linebackers again. We could go on, some players will have up and down days, but the key difference is in multitudes.

The investments in this defense show a commitment to the idea that the Lions will not have the ball stuffed down their throat. It’s been a project that’s put rookies and second-years in positions of power, trusting a youth revolution to prove itself. Youth presents its problems and this might not work the same thing week to week (certainly not with the NFL’s rules, horrified at the very notion of defense!) but it’s an identity the Lions can cling to, grow upon and develop further.

Ultimately though, those legacy identities are built when the club accomplishes great things. Still, stick to it.

When the Lions went away from their defensive aggression, when they stopped playing like predators, they fell apart. That was the story of the Seattle Seahawks, where the plan was more content to let Geno Smith sit back and pick the field apart. But even in that failure, we see that it was the defense that defined this squad, and they lost by what they didn’t do.

No sir. Can’t have that again. Aaron Glenn’s favor with fans may bounce like a drunk game of pong but he should understand well this lesson that violence and aggression are the currency of the gridiron, and spend it with fervor. Do that, and the Lions may have their identity yet. If Detroit wants to be the big shots, they’re going to need one.

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